Survey Course

The Oxford History of the American People

by Samuel Eliot Morison
Oxford, 1150 pp., $12.50

A noticeable current that has run through nearly every effort made so far to deal publicly with this book is one of embarrassment. Does The Oxford History of the American People represent the ripe wisdom of an elder statesman, or the peppery collected crotchets of an academic Harry Truman? Is it really “The” history of the American people, or an interminable string of dicta and anecdote—1122 pages—which takes its shape mainly from the personal preferences of Samuel Eliot Morison? What is its organizing principle, or does it have one? It appears to cover in some way everything from the pre-Columbian Indians to the death of President Kennedy. Does it—and if so, how? Everyone concedes that it has much literary grace. Yet even the “grace” can be irritating, with its bluff heartiness, salty harrumphs, and the inane snatches of song at the end of each chapter. Can you talk about grace without reference to context? What if you don’t like the songs, what if you’d rather not refer to Nathaniel Bacon as “Nat” before you are properly introduced, what if the use of “whilst” starts to get on your nerves? The book is full of common good sense. Yet one commentator in all genial indulgence couldn’t resist calling it Polonius-like good sense. In short, what is the tone to take toward the old gentleman? The book, it appears, has become a best seller. Can it be that the distinguished historian—the old salt, the Brahmin, the man of rich culture—is trading on something that never quite got into the book? This is, I fear, by and large the case.

What is really at stake, it seems to me, is neither style, nor content, nor even attitudes and preferences, but the viability of a particular medium in which to write history—a matter which involves structure, emphasis, and form. The form Morison uses, or thinks he is using, is that of the general survey—“a legacy to my countrymen,” he calls it, “after studying, teaching, and writing the history of the United States for over half a century.” The book is much too long for some purposes and much too short for others, but that scarcely begins to name the difficulty, which only indirectly concerns length. A very long book can still be superficial; a very short one can be both comprehensive and profound; length confers no immunities either way. Morison’s egotism consists in the assumption that he can write the one book that in fact nobody can write.

Is a “general survey” possible at all? I think so, but only under specially controlled conditions, and it is not as though Morison is unacquainted with them. The form which he approaches most closely here is that of the textbook, a perfectly workable form, yet he says he does not want to write a textbook. Why not? Perhaps because he has written one already, a text which has been judged a masterpiece of its genre …

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